Ethiopia on Brink of Civil War

11/09/2020
  • Image20120 AP20310647742637
    Ethiopian Orthodox Christians light candles and pray for peace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday, November 5, 2020. (AP/Mulugeta Avene)

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It came on suddenly. The African nation of Ethiopia is on the brink of a civil war. The potential conflict threatens one of the world’s most strategic regions: the Horn of Africa.

The crisis in Ethiopia—one of Africa’s most powerful and populous countries—has been building for months. The timing seems ironic. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just last year. He made sweeping political reforms that brought hope at the time.

Why the sudden change?

Two things occurred last Wednesday morning: Communications in Ethiopia’s heavily armed northern Tigray region were cut. And Abiy ordered troops to respond to what he alleges was a deadly attack by Tigray’s forces on a military base there.

Both sides have accused each other of initiating the fighting.

Ethiopia’s army says it is deploying troops around the country to the Tigray region. The Tigray leader alleges that fighter jets bombed parts of its capital. Casualties (wounded or dead) have been reported on both sides. With communications still out, it is difficult for government agencies or the press to verify either side’s account of the events.

Ethiopia’s ruling parties appointed Abiy as prime minister in 2018. He was commissioned with calming months of anti-government protests. Abiy quickly won praise for his work, which included curbing measures that repressed some 110 million people and scores of ethnic groups. But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) felt pushed to the outside. Last year, it withdrew from the ruling coalition. It wants Abiy out of office. It set up its own local election in September. Ethiopia’s federal government called that election illegal. It threatened to cut funding to the region. Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael warned of a potentially bloody response to that threat.

Other parts of Ethiopia are similarly unsettled. They have been calling for more autonomy (freedom to govern themselves) from the federal government. That spawns fear that the new conflict could spread into those regions and erupt into full civil war—or reach even further.

Ethiopia’s neighbors Somalia and Sudan have known much turmoil and little peace for decades. An Ethiopian conflict could suck these countries in as well. And tension between Ethiopia and Egypt in the north over a dam on the Blue Nile (see “Ethiopia’s Nile River Dam”) adds further uncertainty if outside nations begin to take sides in an Ethiopian conflict.

(Ethiopian Orthodox Christians light candles and pray for peace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday, November 5, 2020. AP/Mulugeta Avene)